During the next academic year, the 1,850 or so students at Polytechnic University's school of hotel and tourism management will find that their degree and diploma courses will take on a whole new dimension.
With the opening late this year of the Hotel ICON, a commercially run five-star property with 232 rooms, two restaurants, a ballroom and conference facilities, they will have "their own" hotel in which to learn, train and gain invaluable hands-on experience.
Operated by a professional management company appointed and overseen by the university, the hotel will target business travellers and the meetings and conventions market. Performing a careful balancing act, though, it will also serve as an extension of the classroom, where students will play a full and active part in every aspect of day-to-day operations.
"A key ingredient is that, at any one time, one-third of employees will be students who are there for [short-term] work placement or as part-time staff," says Dr David Jones, an associate professor who is helping to integrate the school's curriculum with the practicalities of running a revenue-generating hotel.
"It is something that we will refine over time. But one part we are working on diligently is how to structure the involvement of classes in the overall process. That means exploring different opportunities, such as webcam views of the kitchens, working out the logistics of sharing space and deciding which things we can turn over to students to manage."
Jones says this is a chance to break the mould of how standard 15-week courses are taught. Students will still do field trips, gain work experience in other hotels and learn from external guest speakers. But now, to reinforce the lessons of a tutorial or case study, they will see how things operate and why.
They will be more closely involved in everything from the set-up of a conference room to changing the layout of three prototype guest rooms, specially designed to allow for experimentation and elicit feedback. There will be access to real-time data about how the hotel is performing in order to understand key variables and develop a management perspective.
"When gaining work experience, students may make a mistake, but guests don't look for perfection," Jones says. "They prefer to see that people have the right attitude and are willing to help."
Depending on the work assignment, students will receive academic credit or the appropriate rate of pay. "Everyone is excited about this unique project," Jones says. "The hotel has made a commitment from the general manager down. The students' eyes are going to be wide open."